Twenty-two Literary Figures Explain Why They Signed Letter Calling on PEN American Center to Reject Israeli Government Sponsorship of Festival
April 12, 2016, New York, NY – Twenty-two literary figures who signed a letter calling on the PEN American Center to reject Israeli government sponsorship of its World Voices Festival due to Israel’s human rights abuses have elaborated on their decision in quotes below. The Festival is being held in New York City from April 25-May 1.
The letter, originally signed by 61 writers, was sent to PEN on March 29 by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign to Boycott Israel. PEN indicated in a reply that they would not drop Israeli government funding. The number of letter signers has since grown to 140 writers and 13 organizations. Among the newer signers is Dr. Cornel West, who joins a number of other prominent writers and public intellectuals, including Angela Davis, Pulitzer recipients Junot Díaz, Richard Ford and Alice Walker, and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich.
The release of the letter to PEN has been covered by a number of media outlets, including: The Guardian,Flavorwire, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Weekly Standard, NY Post, Der Speigel, Alternative Information Center, and the Electronic Intifada.
The 22 signers quoted below include: Susan Abulhawa, Ammiel Alcalay, Russell Banks, Hayan Charara, Linh Dinh,Geoff Dyer, Deborah Eisenberg, Francisco Goldman, Marilyn Hacker, Fanny Howe, Fady Joudah, Laila Lalami,Eileen Myles, John Oakes and Colin Robinson, Dr. Ahmad Qatamash, Sarah Schulman, Kamila Shamsie, Gillian Slovo, Burhan Sönmez, Ahdaf Soueif, and Alex Zucker.
Gillian Slovo, Former President of English PEN 2010-2013
“I watched how the cultural boycott on South Africa successfully put pressure on ordinary white South Africans to think about what their government was doing in their name. This request for solidarity from Palestinians is more sophisticated than the South African boycott ever was: instead of censoring individual artists it asks for a refusal of money from the Israeli state. Let PEN America invite as many Israeli writers as it wants to - just make sure that the people who pay their fare and their living expenses are not part of a state that systematically breaks international laws.”
Deborah Eisenberg, PEN Member, 2015 PEN/Malamud Award, 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award
“Two questions: Let’s say that A is an institution dedicated to protecting the free expression of writers around the world from governments hostile to minority populations and dissenting voices, and let’s say that B is a government that is under scrutiny for the increasingly violent and even extrajudicial repression of minority populations and dissenting voices.
1) What might B gain from conspicuously contributing sponsorship to A, and what might A lose by accepting such endorsement?
2) How long did it take to answer 1)?”
Francisco Goldman, Featured 2016 PEN World Voices Participant
“I just don't believe PEN, perhaps the world's most visible and influential organization that stands for and protects free expression everywhere, should accept money from any state that violently represses human rights, as Israel obviously does. Of course Israel is far from the only state that does this. If there were a similar letter circulating on Mexico's support for World Voices, I would certainly sign that too. I wish there were such a letter.”
Laila Lalami, PEN Member, 2016 World Voices Festival Participant, 2016 PEN Award Judge
"This is not a boycott of Israeli writers, who can travel and attend the World Voices festival whenever they wish. This is a call on PEN to refuse funding from a government that grants Israeli writers a freedom of movement it denies to Palestinian writers."
Susan Abulhawa, PEN Member
“No matter what language PEN uses to justify taking money from Israel, their actions amount to a willingness to allow a powerful colonial government to coopt a public U.S. cultural forum in furtherance of an explicit state propaganda campaign. It remains my hope that PEN might still reject funding from Israel’s state propaganda budget. Surely there are other means to fund the travel of individual Israeli writers.” (from April 7 op-ed)
“As someone involved in Palestinian issues for more than 35 years, I have found the success of the BDS movement absolutely extraordinary. The range of extreme reactions to BDS is just a marker of its enormous success, particularly since cultural prestige forms such a deep layer of the Israeli state’s obfuscation of its destructive, unjustifiable, and often illegal policies against the Palestinian people, against Palestinian civilians and civic institutions. Unfortunately, PEN has chosen to misrepresent the aims of this particular BDS campaign and the overwhelming response by writers, including many PEN members, in support of our campaign, is an indication that people, and the press, are paying close attention.”
Russell Banks, PEN Member
“I signed the letter because, as a longtime member of PEN American Center, I object to PEN's acceptance of financial support from any government that restricts or forbids free expression by all of its citizens or by the citizens of any other nation or people. I do not support a cultural boycott as such, which would be to boycott free expression. However, I simply refuse to endorse an organization or public event that accepts financial support from governments that themselves do not permit free expression by their citizens and by people who happen to oppose that government, whether from inside or outside the national boundaries. For the same reasons, I would object to PEN’s acceptance of support from the government of China or North Korea or Azerbaijan.”
Hayan Charara, PEN Member
“If PEN is to remain a meaningful organization, it must advocate for making the lives of all writers freer. At the very least, this means not supporting the actions of a repressive government, which is something that many Israeli poets and writers themselves have argued. It also means that PEN must be honest with itself, its membership, and the wider public. If PEN’s leadership can’t do these things—right now, they are failing badly—then maybe it is time that they step down.”
Linh Dinh, 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
“Americans have blood on their hands when they ignore Israel's ongoing crimes against humanity, which their tax money supports. History will not look kindly upon this complicity.”
Geoff Dyer, PEN Member
"The Israeli government deliberately uses the arts and culture to divert attention from its repression of the Palestinian people. PEN should state clearly that it will not accept Israeli government sponsorship and serve Israel’s strategy. The participation of Israeli writers is welcome, but without their government’s sponsorship."
Marilyn Hacker, Recipient, PEN Member, 2010 PEN/Voelcker Award, 2009 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation
“The call for boycott comes from Palestinians seeking a peaceful end to the occupation -- and from numerous Israeli peace and pro-Palestinian activists as well. It is a nonviolent way of calling attention to an untenable situation. It is not aimed at Israeli writers, artists, academics, but at the Israeli government's attempt to coopt their participation, while repressing the voices of Palestinians and dissident Israelis. Why boycott Israel and not numerous dictatorships elsewhere? Because activists on the ground there have called for it... and if they do in Egypt, or Hungary, or China, we will listen to them.”
Fanny Howe, PEN Member
“I signed this letter to PEN in solidarity with Palestinians, Israeli writers, and writers and artists from around the world who find themselves complicit with a government that they distrust. Their freedom to write and read their work to others has nothing to do with this protest. We are thinking of decades of oppression and occupation by the Israeli government and are hoping to stall the progress of Israeli policy by refusing to cash in on it.”
Fady Joudah, 2010 PEN Translation Award Winner, Past PEN Award Judge
“It would behoove PEN, in keeping with its mission, not only to refuse and return money from a government engaged in occupation and suppression of freedom of expression (of the people it occupies), but also to denounce and make public the many instances in which Israel blocks writers, especially of its own citizens, mostly Arab, from publication and book distribution, as well as free travel. If PEN is vociferous and fearless in standing up for the rights of imprisoned and blocked writers in the Arab world, for example, as in the recent cases in Gulf states, where worldwide efforts took place in support of such authors, it is then appalling that PEN shirks responsibility from standing up for the rights of Palestinian writers under Israeli occupation and as second class citizens inside Israel. Does PEN pretend not to have an idea of the restrictions on travel and book availability for Palestinians, restrictions imposed first and foremost by Israeli government policies? And top of it all, PEN goes on to accept money from such a government? What collusion, what cooptation and whitewashing of PEN's purposes is this, and what shameful silence and concealment? This speaks of the disintegration of PEN's mission. And for PEN to deflect resistance to its behavior with the falsehood that we, writers, aim to boycott individuals is abhorrent. I demand that PEN come clean and public against this so-called donation, and also to speak more consistently on behalf of the plight of Palestinian writers within Israeli borders and under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Eileen Myles, PEN Member
"I signed the letter because I am utterly opposed to the inhumane policies of the government of Israel towards Palestine and think that a World Voices festival cannot accept money from that same government because of those same policies and because of the silencing of dissenting voices within both Palestine and Israel by the Israeli government. Also in US political life there is very little bravery among our own political class in speaking out against the policies of Israel towards Palestine and we as artists and intellectual must speak out in protest against that silence and do insist that PEN represent our voices forcefully and strongly without limitation. Financial support of this festival by the Israeli government would represent acceptance of those same policies, politics and public cowardice in the US and abroad in the face of violence and oppression towards the Palestinian people."
John Oakes (former PEN Board Member) and Colin Robinson, Co-publishers OR Books
“We feel the PEN World Voices Festival a valuable celebration of international writing. We support PEN’s efforts to back freedom of expression and support imprisoned writers around the globe, including in this couny. But we do not understand why PEN feels it necessary to accept funding from a government that promulgates apartheid policies, spurns international law and shows callous disregard for civilian lives. Without Israeli government funding, PEN would continue its good work; the World Voices Festival would continue hosting writers and thrilling audiences. Why allow the Israeli government to sport the badge of honor that is festival sponsorship?”
Dr. Ahmad Qatamash, Palestinian author, and subject of PEN International alert when detained without trial by Israeli government
“I was imprisoned by Israel for eight and a half years without trial under ‘administrative detention,’ as have been thousands of Palestinian detainees, a situation comparable to Franz Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial.’ Accepting any form of sponsorship from Israel is like PEN America Center endorsing such Israeli policies and supporting the theft of Palestinian land and water, which has left Palestinians with access to only 12% of their ancestral home.”
Sarah Schulman, PEN Member
“As a long-term Pen Member, who co-organized a panel of Palestinian writers a few short years ago, I know that Israel has not always been identified as a ‘supporter’ of the conference. This provocative and recent turn of events places all of us who oppose Israel's violations of international law in an adversarial position to our own organization.”
Kamila Shamsie, Former Vice-President of English PEN
“I understand why a call to boycott individual writers would be troubling to PEN members. This is not what we're asking for, and it's not what the wider BDS movement which springs from Palestinian civil society asks for. We're asking instead for PEN to refuse sponsorship from the Israeli government - to do otherwise is to become part of the 'Brand Israel' strategy which uses cultural events as a PR tool. Surely that isn't what PEN America and its membership want for their World Voices Festival?”
Burhan Sönmez, 2016 PEN World Voices Participant (in panel sponsored by the Israeli Embassy)
"The dignity of an individual or a nation is essential. everyone needs to respect the other's existence. We should see that a step towards freedom and equality works in favor of both Palestinian and Israeli people. That is the way a prosperous future for everyone can be secured. We need to pronounce this dream."
Ahdaf Soueif, PEN Member
"To take the Israeli government's money, to treat it as a civilised supporter of art and culture, while it kills and tortures and segregates, is to aid and abet it in its crimes. This is not worthy of PEN."
Alex Zucker, PEN Member
“In light of the Israeli government's restrictions on freedom of expression — documented not only by PEN International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch, as cited in the March 29, 2016, letter from Adalah-NY, but also by Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders — I believe PEN America and the PEN World Voices Festival should not accept financial support from the government of Israel. At the same time, I am equally concerned that this year's festival is receiving financial support from the government of Mexico, which ranks even lower than Israel on freedom of expression, not only restricting and detaining journalists but murdering them, for decades. Given that, worldwide, states remain the greatest threat to free expression, I urge PEN America to consider a change in policy to forgo support from any government. As long as it does accept government funding, the organization must put guidelines in place, so that when a decision is made to accept government money, it is clear who is making the decision and on what basis.